Category Archives: Uncategorized

Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month 2017

September is Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month in Tennessee. Each year at this time, and throughout the month, a wide variety of fun and interesting archaeological activities are underway. The Tennessee public is always invited to join in, participate, and have a good time.

My favorite part of the festivities is the month-long Tennessee Archaeology Blogfest, wherein each day a Tennessee archaeologist, archaeology graduate student, or archaeology undergraduate student posts an interesting and well-illustrated blog article on some aspect of Tennessee archaeology.

I had planned to co-author and post an article for the blogfest entitled Sage Advice from a Tennessee Archaeological Field Cook. My wife, Kathy J. Brown, was the Head Field Cook (and a part-time Field Laboratory Technician) for the Tellico Archaeological Project from 1975 to 1977. Many of the younger folks in Tennessee archaeology today like to read or hear folksy stories about the old days in Tennessee archaeology and what it was like to work on a huge, multi-year archaeological project like Tellico, which involved a residential field camp, field kitchen, and excavations at numerous archaeological sites. We were going to provide excellent field kitchen advice (just in case any of the young folks ever need to do a huge project like this and operate a field kitchen for 60+ archaeologists), and we were going to include some humorous field kitchen anecdotes along the way.  We had kindly asked Dr. Jefferson Chapman to find some candid field kitchen photographs from Tellico days, but it appears that none are available at this time—at least none that we can get in time to put together a blogfest article. (Jeff did try hard, and we much appreciated his effort). Therefore, Kathy and I have decided to shelve the blog article until next September 2018. That should give us enough time to check with old Tellico field personnel (if we can find them) to see if they have any candid field kitchen and cooking photographs taken at the Tellico Field Camp in the 1970s.

Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month is sponsored each year by the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology, and their personnel do a wonderful job of organizing the event and supporting it throughout the month.  If you would like to keep up with the various events and festivities, including the Tennessee Archaeology Blogfest, you may do so by clicking on the safe links below.  The introductory blogfest article will be posted tomorrow, so be sure and tune in for it and all the interesting daily blog articles that will come after it.

TCPA Facebook Page

TCPA Web Page


Addressing Some Recent Criticism of our Eclipse Day Article

Here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog, I rarely get any criticisms of the main articles written for the blog—and if a criticism does come this way—it never shows up as a written comment beneath the piece in question. It usually shows up as a private comment to me by e-mail or telephone. Our eclipse day post entitled NASA Canon of Solar Eclipses for Archaeologists generated a small amount of that discreet private criticism. I am taking some time to address it herein so my readers will understand why I said some of the things I said.  Here is my statement that drew all of the criticism:

Mel Gibson tried to capture such an important moment in his poorly done and culturally insensitive 2006 movie entitled “Apocalypto.” One of the settings in this motion picture is an imaginary Mayan city in Mesoamerica at the time of European first contact.

The factors in this statement that drew the criticism were the phrases “poorly done and culturally insensitive” and “imaginary Mayan city.”  The criticisms came from folks who know quite a bit about American archaeology.  They wondered why I would ever say such derogatory things about this movie because they thought it was a wonderful movie.

The movie Apocalypto was released to American theaters in 2006, which is going on 12 years ago. It was attended by many ordinary Americans and by many archaeologists, including archaeologists like me who have undergraduate and graduate training in Mesoamerican archaeology. Even we archaeologists know that movie makers take some artistic license with prehistory and history in the story lines of motion pictures, such that one rarely sees complete prehistoric or historic realism and accuracy in a movie. Given even that basic understanding going-in, the movie Apocalypto drew a firestorm of public criticism and outrage from archaeologists, particularly those who specialize in Mayanist archaeology.

This criticism and outrage came for many reasons. For example, the prehistoric and historic cultural timelines in the movie were mish-mashed to give the false impression that the height of Classic Mayan culture, which actually ended circa 800 A.D., was somehow still fully underway at the time of first European contact.  The Aztec practice of massive human sacrifice, as related to us by the first Spanish conquistadors in Mexico, was conflated with Mayan culture to give the false impression that the ancient Maya and their historic-era Mayan descendants were just as bloodthirsty in their religious ceremonies. Finally, the Mayan people are portrayed as depraved, heartless, heathen savages more worthy of the streets of Sodom and Gomorrah than the streets of ancient Tikal—and to make it all worse—in a manner that failed to take sufficient and accurate stock of a long, rich, and highly detailed Mayan cultural tapestry dominated by great lineal rulers, craftsmen, astronomers, mathematicians, artists, scribes, and so forth. In short, many of the people who know the most about Mayan prehistory and history were royally pissed by what Mel Gibson had done in this movie—and they let everyone know it in the news media back in double-ought six.

If you would like to read a just a small sample of the many detailed criticisms of Apocalypto from 12 years ago, you may do so by clicking on the following safe links:

‘Apocalypto’ A Distorted view of Maya History

“Apocalypto” Tortures the Facts, Expert Says

Is “Apocalypto” Pornography?

Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”: A Critical Analysis

Finally, as mentioned to my critics, I enjoyed the movie Apocalypto too, primarily because one rarely sees anything even quasi-archaeological about North America, Central America, and their indigenous cultures in modern movies. Just like everyone else, I was anxious to see how Mel Gibson would portray Mayan people and culture in this movie—and my feet pitter-pattered into it with no illusions about the degree of artistic license movie makers can take with prehistory and history. Nonetheless, throughout Apocalypto, I was more than just a little overwhelmed by the relentless violence and cruelty, and the archaeologist within me was biting his lip far more than just once or twice at the assorted archaeological and cultural nonrealities that were filling my eyes. Therefore, the phraseology in my eclipse post was a brief attempt, en passant, to capture all of the past negative archaeological bluster that surrounded the release of this controversial motion picture.


NASA Canon of Solar Eclipses for Archaeologists

Solar Eclipse

Today is total solar eclipse day in a big portion of Tennessee.  We are just inside the edge of the totality path here in Oak Ridge. Automobile traffic within the eclipse pathway across East Tennessee, particularly near its center, is expected to rival that of traffic on Tennessee football Saturdays. If you are a professional archaeologist, an avocational archaeologist, or an ordinary citizen with an interest in archaeology, you probably know that solar eclipses were important celestial events in ancient times. Mel Gibson tried to capture such an important moment in his poorly done and culturally insensitive 2006 movie entitled Apocalypto. One of the settings in this motion picture is an imaginary Mayan city in Mesoamerica at the time of European first contact. The main character (Jaguar Paw) is a non-Mayan captive taken during a raid on a small settlement in the Maya hinterlands. His body has been painted with a rare and highly treasured pigment referred to by archaeologists as Maya blueto ready him for human sacrifice in the following memorable scene from that movie:

In the years prior to 2006, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) became aware of the potential effects that solar eclipses might have had on ancient cultures. With this in mind, they developed two highly detailed tools to assist archaeologists in assessing such effects. The first of these NASA tools was published on October 1, 2006, and it was entitled the Five Millenium Canon of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 (2000 BCE to 3000 CE). It includes eclipse occurrence dates, visibility pathway data, and all sorts of other data for nearly every solar eclipse that has occurred across the entire earth over the past 4,000 years and for another 1,000 years into our future. The density and complexity of the potentially useful solar eclipse data in this volume is so high that just looking at it will quite literally make your head hurt. In fact, if your head does not hurt while thumbing through it, we recommend that you pinch yourself really hard just to make sure you are still alive.

This entire volume is available free of charge in PDF form, but the file is 257 megabytes. I have a new, super fast PC with a one-terabyte hard drive, and my attempts to download it (via my high-speed Xfinity cable) crashed my Mozilla Firefox connection twice. I hope you have better luck if you are using another Internet program and want a personal copy. I had no problem just opening it and reading it. You may either read only or download a personal copy to your laptop or PC by clicking on the following safe link:

Five Millennium Canon of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 (2000 BCE to 3000 CE)

You will notice that we said “nearly every solar eclipse” in the second paragraph above. After publication of the first volume, the authors (Fred Espenak and Jean Meeus) realized that they needed to go back and fill in a large number of data holes in their first volume. They did this by publishing a supplemental volume in 2008.  This smaller second volume was entitled the Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 (2000 BCE to 3000 CE).  Its data density and complexity will also deliver your brain to Migraine City. This entire volume is available free of charge in PDF form, and you may download it to your laptop or PC by clicking on the following safe link:

Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 (2000 BCE to 3000 CE)

How might a Tennessee archaeologist use this eclipse data? Well, the eclipse occurrence date, latitude data, longitude data, and visibility pathway data should allow an archaeologist to identify every partial and full solar eclipse that would have been visible while standing on the ground surface at Mound Bottom in Cheatham County, Tennessee, between 1,000 A.D. and 1475 A.D. Recognizing that correlation does not necessarily represent cause and effect, she could compare these eclipses and their dates to her site-specific archaeological data to identify possible meaningful correlations between eclipses and major past cultural phenomena on the site. For example, an archaeologist could determine whether a full solar eclipse correlates with  the approximate date when mound building came to an end at Mound Bottom.  Does a major eclipse event correlate with the first appearance of filleted rim bowls on Mississippian sites in the Middle Cumberland region? Could these filleted rims represent the solar corona beads sometimes visible around the edge of a fully eclipsed sun? Theoretically, you could use the NASA solar eclipse data as at least one factor, among others, in testing all sorts of archaeological hypotheses or fantasies at numerous Tennessee and American archaeological sites occupied at one time or another over the past 4,000 years. If you do not mind a headache and feel up to the task, go ahead and give it a whirl.

(Note:  I used the term fantasies above for a reason. We American archaeologists like to frame our work as science and couch it in scientific language—always dressing it up in a tuxedo and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to salve our egos. However, more than most of us would like to admit, one can often dream up multiple fantasies that adequately explain a single archaeological dataset—and while we might call them competing hypotheses at the office or in a journal article—I am more than willing to call them fantasies about the past over a good beer or while chatting around a good campfire. Baseline honesty every once in a while is good for the soul.  What?  You say it cannot be a fantasy because it is rooted in archaeological data?  Oh, come now.  Surely, you can do better than that. Until someone invents a time-travel machine, American archaeology will always contain some element of fantasy.)

Tennessee Archaeology and Nuclear War


Let Us All Hope So

Last year at this time, if you had asked me if I would be writing a blog post like this one, I would have said:  “No. Not a chance.”  Yet, here we are living under at least the very real potential for a war with North Korea and the possibility that Kim Jong-Un might actually succeed in lobbing at least a few low-yield nuclear warheads onto the continental United States.  Could they make it as far as Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, or Chattanooga?  Who knows? It all depends on North Korean missile trajectories, fuel burn times, atmospheric re-entry shielding for warheads, and accuracy in targeting—all things that are partially unknown at this point in time.  One thing is for sure though.  If Tennessee archaeologists and their civilian supporters end up dead in a nuclear war, not much archaeology is going to get done in Tennessee for quite a while.  Therefore, one of the best things you could do for Tennessee archaeology and protecting our cultural resources would be to stay alive with all that archaeological knowledge in your head. Because I am the only professional archaeologist in Tennessee who has lived in Oak Ridge for 34 years and worked at various U.S. Department of Energy nuclear facilities around the country, I can offer up a few basic survival tips that most people might not know. I will do it in a listing format:

(1)  Some of you who attended public schools in the 1950s and 1960s may remember the advice to “duck and cover” under your little school desk.  Forget it!  Forget anything like that! You have to protect your whole body from powerful kinetic blast effects, intense heat (6,000 – 11,000 degrees C some distance from ground zero and > 1 million degrees C at ground zero), and intense ionizing radiation. Unless your name is Clark Kent, duck and cover is not going to do the job. You need to follow much better basic advice if at all possible.  You can get some of that here:

How to Survive a Nuclear Attack

More on How to Survive a Nuclear Attack

Even More on How to Survive a Nuclear Attack

(2)  What is radioactive fallout (a.k.a. radioactive contamination)? A nuclear weapon has highly radioactive materials in it—usually unstable isotopes of uranium and plutonium. Upon detonation, quadrillions of particles of this material (and its radioactive decay products) become airborne by themselves, can attach themselves to dust particles, and can be carried very long distances by the wind. Think of each tiny particle as a “little sun” that is constantly emitting dangerous waves of radiation. Like almost everything else that goes up, most of these tiny particles will inevitably come down and settle on the landscape and anything sitting, standing, or moving on that landscape. After settling, these particles will continue emitting dangerous radiation wherever they settle and sit. If a particle settles into a vat of molten lead, it will become part of the lead metal when it cools. This is called fixed radioactive contamination, meaning it has become part of the hardened lead and cannot be easily removed. If a particle lands on an unopened can of chili, it is called removable radioactive contamination, which means it can be cleaned off the can.

(3)  Depending on where you are on the landscape when a nuclear weapon is detonated, if you can do so safely, it is best to stay out of the area where most of the radioactive fallout is blowing to in the wind as a large, elongate, airborne plume.  This will depend on the weather conditions and winds at the time of the blast—including normal prevailing winds. If the wind is blowing from southwest to northeast, you will want to stay out of the area to the northeast of the ground zero blast. For example, if a blast has occurred in downtown Nashville under these wind conditions, the airborne radioactive fallout plume would be the most concentrated and highly dangerous in the direction of Hendersonville, Gallatin, and about 100 miles on out in that direction.

If you would like to get an an idea of what damage a nuclear explosion would do to you in your city, which way the airborne radioactive contamination plume would blow, and how it would spread out on a map, you may use the famous NUKEMAP application developed by Alex Wellerstein. Just click on the following safe link and read the directions:

NUKEMAP Application

(4)  The most basic thing to know about protecting yourself from ionizing radiation is the initialism TDS, which stands for:




You may read a little about that here:

Time, Distance, and Shielding

(5)  Apart from TDS, your next biggest problems will be finding safe food and water.  The best thing to do is have enough stored food and water in a properly shielded place that is a substantial distance from a source of radiation or radioactive contamination. Yes, I know you are a professional archaeologist, and you know how to go Paleolithic or Archaic for subsistence. However, that is not going to help you in a nuclear war situation, at least not for the first two weeks or thereabouts.

For one thing, you are going to have to hunker down in a place were you are protected by TDS, which means you cannot go outside for at least two weeks. If you do, you will breathe in radioactive particles, the particles will settle on your skin and clothes (which you will take back inside your shelter with you), and you may accidentally ingest the particles while outside. (Note: Plutonium is both radioactive, and chemically speaking, highly poisonous.)  All of this can kill you.  This means no roving around outside for deer, hickory nuts, or water from the creek. The deer may be covered with radioactive particles and may have ingested them. If you dress and consume a deer or any other animal, you will get that radioactive contamination on you and inside of you after eating the meat, which may kill you if you get a high enough dose of radiation from the particles. Any gatherable foods in the natural world, such as hickory nuts, may be similarly contaminated with radioactive particles. The water in the creek may also be highly contaminated with radioactive particles that make it unsafe to ingest. See the problem?  If you have enough stored water in your fallout shelter, enough stored food, and a lot of body fat, then praise Jesus.

(6)  Once upon a time, I watched an episode of The Twilight Zone where people in a rural area away from a nuclear blast zone were afraid to eat canned food that had been stored in a limestone cave. What was the key fear?  They were afraid the food in the cans had been contaminated with alpha, beta, and gamma rays, meaning that all of the rays that had penetrated the walls of the can had somehow collected on the food inside the can. In other words, they were afraid of ingesting the equivalent of canned sunshine.  It does not work that way folks. Alpha rays, which can be blocked by a piece of copier paper, cannot even get inside the can. Beta and gamma rays go right in one side of the can and out the other side.  They do not collect inside the can or in the food.  The food inside the can is perfectly safe to eat as long as it has remained tightly sealed inside the can where airborne radioactive particles cannot settle. Got it? Good!!!  Many people do not know that simple fact.

Once again, the danger is any airborne radioactive contamination particles that may have settled on the outside of the can. That is removable radioactive contamination, which means it can be cleaned off before opening the can, and as long as none of it gets inside the food when you open the can, then you are good to go munching.  The only trick—and this is a really serious trick—is getting the outside of the can cleaned off if it has radioactive particles on it and making sure your fingers, food preparation utensils, and  eating utensils are free of such particles. You would have to be wearing appropriate radiation protection gear to clean a can and the utensils (bearing in mind the amount of radioactivity present and limiting your time of exposure during cleaning). You would also have to get rid of all the dirty water, cloths, and tools used to clean the can—including all the gear you were wearing—if the gear cannot be cleaned safely.  It would all have to be disposed at a location that provides sufficient TDS relative to where you are. Most people will not have the knowledge, equipment, and instrumentation (Geiger counter and dosimetry instruments) necessary to do all of this safely.  Those of you who have had some sort of radiation protection training in a past life situation (X-Ray Technician, Environmental Cleanup Technician, Radiation Safety Specialist) might be able to do this successfully if your life depends on it.

If you emerge from your fallout shelter after two weeks or more and you do find a bunch of canned food or drinks somewhere that has remained normally sealed and safe from radioactive particles settling on it, the food or drink inside the cans will be safe to ingest. Just make sure your hands, cooking, and eating utensils are free of radioactive particles too.

(7) Disorientation. The aftermath of a nuclear war will be culturally and socially disorienting.  When you emerge from your fallout shelter after two weeks or more, many of the cultural and social systems that were once in place to ease you through your day may be gone. Expect that and find personal ways to adapt to the absence of electricity, running pipe water, medical services, and in many cases, an absence of people.  Do not despair.  Other people have survived.  You will just have to hang on and find them.  Many may be sick or dying in very large numbers. Many may be horribly burned.  Be prepared for that emotionally if you can—just accept it as the new normal for a while. Other survivors will be just fine—but perhaps emotionally shaken. Remember the one key thing most prisoners of war learn.  The ones who survive are the ones who hold out no hope of early release and just accept that things are going to go badly for quite a while. The following National Geographic documentary shows you what life will be like near ground zero in the aftermath of a nuclear attack:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

(8)  Do not let the contents of motion pictures and survivalist magazines be your guide for what human culture and society will be like after you come out of your fallout shelter after two weeks or more. Motion pictures and many survivalist magazines paint a picture of a Mad Max, free-for-all world where everyone has gone crazy, people are killing each other right and left to steal food/water, and the only person who is going to survive is the “Lone American Who—All by Himself—Is Armed to the Teeth with Firearms and Explosives and Ready to Kill on Sight.” If you know as much about anthropology as I do, you know that this lone survivalist guy will be among the first to go down. He is dead meat by his own hands. Human beings are by nature social, and cooperation among human beings is how and why we (as a species) have survived and adapted well to our various environments over the past couple of million years. That is not going to change—even after a nuclear war.  The ones who survive, get back on their feet, and thrive again will be the social and cultural cooperators. Be cool and be one. Love your neighbor as yourself, and all will be well—eventually—maybe.

(9)  You might not need any of the above advice for one very good reason.  It is the only ship in the U.S. Navy named after the Volunteer State.  The USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) is an Ohio Class nuclear submarine in current operation around the world. For all we know, the USS Tennessee may be lurking in the waters off the east or west coast of North Korea right now—and Kim Jong-Un is no doubt aware of that possibility. The USS Tennessee carries on-board 24 Trident II D-5 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM). Each of these 24 missiles is equipped with eight MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle) D-88 nuclear warheads. Each D-88 nuclear warhead has a yield of 475 kilotons. What does that mean in simple terms?  When just one of these SLBMs is launched from the USS Tennessee beneath sea level, it can drop eight D-88 nuclear warheads on eight different, widely spaced targets in North Korea or drop all of them on just one target—like say Pyongyang—the capitol of North Korea.

What would just one D-88 nuclear warhead do to Pyongyang?  Click on NUKEMAP  and do the following when you get there:

Type in the Name of the City: Pyongyang.  Click “Go.”

Enter a Yield: 475 kt

Basic Options:  Select Airburst and Check the Radioactive Fallout box

Advanced Options:  Click on burst height and enter 1,000 ft

Click:  Red Detonate Button

Use the plus and minus buttons in the lower right corner of the map to zoom in and out on the map and see the maximum perimeters of the various types of damage that would occur in Pyongyang. Notice how the deadly radioactive fallout plume would spread across North Korea after just this one detonation in Pyongyang. Can you imagine what eight of these D-88 detonations occurring simultaneously in different parts of North Korea would do?  Kim Jong-Un knows, which is why you might not need any of the above advice.

Dr. Carl Kuttruff, our Tennessee Archaeology Friend, Has Passed Away

Carl Kuttruff

Tennessee Archaeologists Having a Technical Discussion in the Woods Long Ago

Left to Right: Carl Kuttruff, John Broster, and Brian Butler

Our Tennessee archaeology legend and friend, Dr. Carl Kuttruff, passed away on July 23, 2017, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Many people in Tennessee archaeology knew Carl much better than I did. However, I had several fond encounters with him. Carl worked for a number of years at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee, and I first encountered Carl while he was leading the Vanderbilt University field school at Mound Bottom circa 1974.

My next encounter with Carl came in 1976 when I visited his massive excavations at the Fort Loudoun site in Monroe County, Tennessee.  That was one really hot summer with no air conditioning and little shade. Carl and his field crew were occupying the old Carson House, a white, 19th century Victorian farmhouse located just off Highway 72S in Vonore, Tennessee. At the same time, our University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) Tellico Archaeology crew was occupying an old church camp a short walk down the road from the Carson house. Members of both field crews visited with each other often that summer. During off hours, Carl and his crew set up a volleyball net at the Carson House, and members of the two field crews had some lively volleyball matches that summer. How they had enough energy to play so much volleyball after long, sweltering summer days in the field was a monument to the enthusiasm of young archaeologists—and no doubt to the socially lubricating powers of tequila.

Carl’s work at Fort Loudoun resulted in his now famous book entitled Fort Loudoun in Tennessee: 1756-1760, a comprehensive, thick, and quite heavy hard cover volume covering the history of the British colonial fort, its archaeology, replications, exhibits, and interpretations.  A very small amount of human skeletal remains were found during Carl’s excavations at Fort Loudoun.  He was kind enough to ask me to analyze them for him, and the results were included in this book.

My fondest remembrances of Carl go back to 1976-1977, or thereabouts, when Carl would make visits to UTK to give talks or conduct research. He often came on winter nights when it was frigid cold outside. Rather than spend a night at an expensive hotel, he would bring his backpack and sleeping bag with him. Dave McMahan and I were sharing a small dormitory room in Reese Hall (Presidential Court Complex) on campus at UTK. Carl would come by for a visit and ask if he could spend the night with us and sleep on the floor of our dormitory room.  We were always glad to see Carl and welcome him into our room for some conversation and a good night’s rest after a long day.

An obituary for Carl was published recently in The Advocate, a local newspaper in Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, the last few words of his obituary were not published. We are not sure why. It may have been an editorial mistake or a decision forced by limited publication space. Whatever the case might be, you may read Carl’s obituary by clicking on the following safe link, and when you get there, please notice a clickable button that allows you to leave a personal message of condolence to the members of Carl’s family:

Obituary for Carl Kuttruff

Carl was a nice person who I found to be kind, friendly, and easy to get along with.  We will all miss Carl very much.

Photograph Credit: Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

State Archaeological Permits: They Are Not Like Fishing and Hunting Licenses

Looter Holes

Thousands of Random Digging Holes in a Middle Eastern Archaeological Site

Most professional archaeologists do not keep track of the various “goings on” in the avocational archaeology and artifact collector communities. I do to a certain extent and so does my friend Doug Rocks MacQueen in the United Kingdom, as well as a few other professional archaeologists I know. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up in the Nashville area, there were no professional archaeologists. If a kid wanted to learn something about American archaeology or Tennessee archaeology, local libraries were of little help. The only way to learn anything at all about prehistoric Native Americans was to get in touch with a local avocational archaeologist, such as Buddy Brehm or John Dowd, or call on various local artifact collectors. That being the case, I became familiar with those folks, felt at home with them, and enjoyed interacting with them—and still do with the ones who are friendly and receptive. I suppose this is why, every once in a while, I take a break from whatever else I am doing with American archaeology and tune in to what is happening in those communities. I am writing this blog post because of one particular issue that I have encountered several times on visits to various on-line artifact collector venues over the past few years, so this post is kindly directed to the many folks in the American and Tennessee artifact collector communities.

I cannot recall what the specific on-line venue was because it was about three years ago, but an artifact collector in one of the 50 states had written in to ask if it was legal for a person to dig for artifacts on private property in that state. He was told that it was legal to dig for artifacts on private property as long as he got written permission from the property owner and a written state permit from the official state archaeological authorities. His response was something along the lines of the following:

Well, that is good news!!!  I know a farmer in my state that has an archaeological site on his land, and I feel certain he will give me permission to dig in it.  So, I will just apply for a state permit, pay them a few bucks for the permit, and start digging.

Some states actually require a written state permit to perform any kind of excavations for artifacts and/or archaeological information on privately owned land. One good example of this is the State of Oregon. Here in Tennessee (and in most other states), it is legal to perform archaeological excavations on state-owned or state-managed property if a person gets a written permit to do so from the appropriate state agency. Here in Tennessee that agency is the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee.

So, if you are an artifact collector, it is easy as pie—right?  You just ask for permission to dig, pay a few quick bucks like you do for your fishing or hunting license, grab the nearest shovel, and you are on your way. Correct?

Face palm.  No.  Sorry to burst your bubble, but it does not work that way here in Tennessee or in any other state that I know about—including Oregon. These state permits are not anything like fishing licenses or hunting licenses. They are far more serious business and far more difficult to obtain. Here is a list of typical specifics that will explain what you would have to do to get one of these state permits to excavate on an archaeological site:

(1)  You would have to be a professional archaeologist with a Ph.D. or M.A. degree in archaeology (or a related field) and meet the minimum professional standards and years of supervisory and excavation experience specified by your state.  Truthfully, in most states, they will prefer far more than just the minimum qualifications.

(2) You would have to fill out a standard state application for a permit. This application usually asks for a lot of detail and attachments (e.g., a map of the proposed excavation area).

(3) You would have to write and submit to the state a formal proposal to do archaeological research. In this proposal, you would need to set forth the specific archaeological problems to be addressed by your excavations; show how you are going to address them (formal research design); justify the proposed work; and demonstrate that you have sufficient qualified personnel, funding, equipment, laboratory space, artifact curation plans, and levels of funding. You would also have to present a formal schedule for successfully completing your proposed work. This research proposal is not a quick-and-dirty, one-page deal in most cases. It takes multiple pages, and you have to do serious, high-quality scientific writing; know how to use professional archaeological terminology; and exhibit a deep understanding of archaeological science, archaeological field methods, laboratory processes, and archaeological logistics.

(4) You would submit to the official supervision of state archaeological personnel through occasional or regular announced and unannounced visits to your archaeological field operations and/or laboratory operations. You would also be required to submit weekly or monthly progress reports to the state and the sources of your funding. In other words, a professional state archaeologist would be breathing down your neck a big part of the time to make sure you were doing the work responsibly.

(5)  When your fieldwork and laboratory work are completed, you would be required to write and submit a formal, highly detailed, written archaeological report on your work, including reports on lithic analyses; ceramic analyses; zooarchaeological analyses; analyses of paleoethnobotanical remains; palynological analyses; human osteological analyses, if human burials were excavated; and radiocarbon dating and other dating methods that were used. A typical report could run several hundred typed, single-spaced pages with appendices.

(6)  Unlike fishing and hunting licenses, these are not general permits that are issued only one time—and afterwards a person can excavate anywhere in the state on any private property, state property, or state-managed property they like. Normally, each new site-level excavation project requires a new permit specific to the work proposed for a particular archaeological site. However, exceptions that include multiple site research can be made, depending on the nature of the proposed project.

(7) Now. Pay close attention here. If you do not personally dig random holes into archaeological sites and never plan to do so, I am not talking to you here. So relax. However, if you do put random digging holes into archaeological sites, you may not like this, but I have to be honest with you here.

There is a very long American history of some artifact collectors (not all) [without formal archaeological training] putting random, spatially uncontrolled digging holes into archaeological sites. Digging without grid squares in this random, three-dimensionally uncontrolled manner destroys the ancient archaeological story written in the soil on archaeological sites. You can see what this random, massive destruction looks like in the sad photograph at the beginning of this blog post (above).

Many thousands of American archaeological sites (and many sites right here in Tennessee) have been destroyed in this same manner by such random, spatially uncontrolled, and unrecorded digging. Archaeological information that would fill whole libraries has been lost forever as a direct result of such digging. Consequently, most professional archaeologists get really nervous at the idea of letting an artifact collector loose with a shovel and grapefruit knife on any archaeological site with intact cultural deposits. As a direct result of this long history of artifact collectors and artifact dealer minions destroying sites, most state archaeological authorities will never issue one of these state permits to an artifact collector. As an artifact collector, your chances of obtaining one of these state permits—in any of the 50 states and U.S. territories—are about the same as your chances for personally resurrecting George Washington from the dead. I know that sounds provocative and harsh, but it was not meant to hurt your feelings. It was said that way to emphasize the baseline truth of the matter so you will not forget it.

I hope this article has cleared up most of the confusion that exists among some folks in the American and Tennessee artifact collector community, particularly for novice artifact collectors, about state permits to excavate archaeological sites on private property, state property, or state-managed property. Obtaining one of these permits to excavate is not anything like paying a few quick bucks for a fishing or hunting license. Getting one of these written permits to excavate requires a lot of professional archaeological expertise, a lot of professional experience, and a damned lot of deep thought and hard work.

Artifact collectors and professional archaeologists in many different states, and a lot of foreign countries, read the various articles on the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. If you have specific questions about obtaining one of these state permits, please consult with the office of the State Archaeologist in the particular state you have in mind to do archaeological excavation work. The many specific requirements for obtaining a written state permit can vary some from one state to another.  Please click on the following safe link to get the contact information for the Office of the State Archaeologist in all 50 states and U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico:

Contact Information for State Archaeologists


Recent Archaeology in Oliver Springs, Tennessee

The Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute (ORARI) has spent several days researching, exploring, and recording a previously uninvestigated archaeological site in Oliver Springs, Tennessee. Yesterday was our last day of work at the site—mostly a day to tie up a few loose ends. Because the heat was brutal and our tasks were few, we had planned to tie up our loose ends in about one hour. However, an unexpected but welcome opportunity to obtain even more information and data on the site presented itself in the form of a very nice man in a white pickup truck who drove onto the site and parked next to the ORARI archaeology van. We struck up a conversation with him and quickly learned that he had been a student (1947-1955) at a former school building that once occupied a portion of the site. He was able to fill in some significant historical and architectural information gaps we were concerned might go unfilled. Consequently, we ended up spending an extra hour sweltering in the afternoon sun, asking detailed questions, and taking copious field notes.  We were grateful for the opportunity!

No small or large archaeological project ends without taking a crew picture (Figure 1). The old guy with the “chrome dome” in the center is me—the Field Director.  The other two folks served as my volunteer Field Technicians at the site.  They also happen to be my fine and beloved children.


Figure 1.  Left to Right: Leah C. Brown, Tracy C. Brown, and Aaron W. Brown

The archaeological site consists of two discrete areas. One is the former location of a small school that was constructed in 1916 to serve Grades 1 through 8.  This school was operated until 1967. Soon afterwards, the abandoned school building was turned into a neighborhood community center.  Unfortunately, this originally square, two-story, brick school building burned down on Saturday, August 30, 1975.  The burned remains were razed, and a new neighborhood community center was built in the late 1970s. In fact, it was built right on top of the location once occupied by the old school building.  All that remains of the old school today are a set of exterior concrete stairs embedded in a soil embankment along the street in front of the school, a walkway from the stairs to the front of the former building, and a portion of a fragmented sidewalk that paralleled the front of the school building.

The other discrete area of the site is a small, sandstone rockshelter located in the general vicinity of the school, but also historically related to the school in an unusual way.  This rockshelter is approximately 20 feet wide, 5 feet high, and 18 feet deep (front to back).  The floor is primarily soil that contains some chunks of breakdown rock—but no boulders that are evident at the soil surface.  The soil floor is dusty like wood ashes in some places and somewhat damp and compact in other places. Over the years, this rockshelter has been visited frequently by those local citizens who are aware of its presence, and this has resulted in a large, unattractive accumulation of bottles, cans, and other disposables on the soil surface inside the rockshelter.

Sometime in the 19th century or early 20th century, a local citizen found evidence of a prehistoric occupation in this rockshelter, primarily in the form of lithic artifacts. Word of it eventually filtered down to the students who attended the nearby school. According to Snyder E. Roberts, the 20th century historian of Oliver Springs, some of the students at the old school were found to be absent from school in the morning or absent from class later in the day on various days throughout any given school year. Whenever a teacher discovered these absences, she would initiate a search for the missing children—only to find that they had quietly sneaked off the school grounds and over to the rockshelter to dig for projectile points/knives and other prehistoric artifacts. Apparently, this happened quite often over the years, establishing a clear and persistent historical and cultural connection between the school and the rockshelter.

Eventually, this rockshelter became more widely known among local citizens, and it attracted teenage/adult artifact collectors bent on digging. In fact, during our visit to the rockshelter, a small but shallow “digger hole” of very recent origin was observed and photographed in the floor of the rockshelter (Figure 2).


Figure 2.  Recent Digger Hole in the Floor of the Rockshelter

The irregular floor surface in the rockshelter today suggests quite a lot of other past digging has occurred, the floor undulations reflecting a combination of long-abandoned, small, shallow, open holes and associated backdirt piles.

It should be noted that ORARI makes a deliberate and concerted effort to avoid disturbance of intact or disturbed archaeological deposits whenever possible because our orientation is decidedly toward site preservation rather than site excavation.  The ORARI crew did not perform any sort of excavations in this rockshelter or on the site of the old school—and we did not collect any artifacts. Our effort at this archaeological site was restricted to deep background archival research, informant interviews, making field observations on the school grounds and in the rockshelter, taking measurements of various surface features, recording the current community center (almost 50 years old); taking field photographs, collecting information/data via extensive field notes, and writing it all up, along with some interpretations, in our daily electronic field manual entries. In other words, good archaeology does not always entail a shovel or trowel in the ground—nor should it.

Now that our on-site work has been essentially completed, we have plans to identify and interview any local individuals who may still own artifacts they found while digging in the rockshelter floor or on the steep soil embankment just outside of it. We will take a close look at the artifacts, photograph them, and identify temporally and culturally diagnostic pp/k’s and ceramics to help us determine how many prehistoric components are present in the rockshelter and determine the date ranges when the site was occupied during prehistoric and historic times. The results from our archival research, fieldwork, and interpretations will be recorded on a standard electronic Archaeological Site Survey Record form for permanent filing in the Tennessee Register of Archaeological Sites (Tennessee Site Survey Files) housed at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee.  In addition, we plan to write a report on this work and similar work we are doing at several other archaeological sites in Oliver Springs and its vicinity.

Finally, just in case this site is of interest to anyone doing rockshelter research in other parts of Tennessee, this particular rockshelter is located barely inside the Cumberland Mountains and very close to the boundary line between the Cumberland Plateau physiographic province and the Ridge and Valley physiographic province—where limestone and dolomite meet  sandstone.  This is also arguably a site right on a major ecotone boundary line between two significant biomes and in a small area with a very high concentration of natural mineral springs and freshwater springs. Depending on how disturbed the archaeological deposits are (or are not) at depth in this Oliver Springs rockshelter, it might pose a future opportunity for Tennessee archaeologists to compare and contrast rockshelter occupations in a similar environmental setting along the western escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau to an occupational regime at a rockshelter site on its eastern escarpment at a location much farther south than in upper East Tennessee.

Because of some rather severe safety constraints, we were unable to closely examine this Oliver Springs rockshelter for prehistoric rock art or historically interesting graffiti. However, we may be able to do this at some future date.